On an expanse of farmland in Dorset, England, a team from Bournemouth University is currently excavating a settlement that dates back to at least 100 B.C., and is believed to be Britain’s oldest known town. In addition to some 150 to 200 house-like structures, the researchers have discovered storage pits containing the skeletons of “hybridized” animals, such as a cow with a horse’s head and a sheep with extra legs attached. But these weird hybrids weren’t the only things left behind as possible sacrifices by the settlement’s Iron Age inhabitants: In one grave, the researchers found the skeletal remains of a woman placed carefully atop a mound of animal bones.
Scientists have named the settlement found under ploughed fields in southern Britain “Duropolis” in honor of a tribe called the Durotriges, who lived on the site from around 50 B.C. until A.D. 43, when the Romans invaded Britain. They haven’t yet named the site’s earlier Iron Age inhabitants, who they believe may have lived there starting as early as 400 B.C. Scientists aren’t sure exactly where the Durotriges originated from—possibly mainland Europe—and they also don’t know whether the tribe—which left many traces behind, including pottery, coins and oval-shaped graves—merged with the earlier peoples or displaced them.
By studying the site, researchers hope to gain a window into life in prehistoric Britain, as well as how the Roman invasion might have affected the people living there at the time. So far, researchers have excavated 16 roundhouses at Duropolis, out of a total of between 150 and 200 believed to be located there. Measuring between 35 and 50 feet in diameter, these structures likely had thatched roofs and walls made of wattle and daub during the town’s heyday. In addition to the roundhouses, the researchers have excavated 122 storage pits connected to them, revealing an intriguing collection of remains, which appear to have been intended as religious sacrifices.
According to Paul Cheetham, a senior lecturer in archaeology at the U.K.’s Bournemouth University who is co-director of the dig, the settlement’s Iron Age inhabitants used the pits to store vital food supplies, such as grain, in a pre-refrigeration age. They seem to have used each pit for just a year or two at most before digging a new one. Before abandoning the old pit, however, they buried an animal skeleton in it—and not just any animal, but a hybridized animal skeleton formed from the body parts of various animals, including horses, cows, sheep and pigs. Some of the skeletons found in the storage pits at Duropolis were particularly well articulated, or connected, indicating that the hybridized animal remains were buried with flesh still attached. It’s not known whether the hybrids were stitched together, as organic material such as string would not have survived in the ground over 2,000 years.
As these animals would have been quite valuable as a food source, leaving them in the abandoned pits must have had great meaning—most likely as a religious sacrifice. Miles Russell, Cheetham’s co-director and a senior lecturer of prehistoric and Roman archaeology at Bournemouth, told LiveScience that the ancient Britons who left the animals were “creating combinations of prized animals as an offering to particular deities.” The hybridized remains suggest that like other ancient civilizations including the Greeks, the Iron Age inhabitants of Duropolis could have had beliefs or mythologies involving hybrid animals. Beyond this, however, the exact meaning of such sacrifices are lost to history, as no written records exist to suggest names or any other details about the gods worshiped by ancient Celtic peoples.
In perhaps the most striking discovery made during the excavations, one of the pits contained a female human skeleton, lying facedown atop a bed of animal bones. From a cut mark found on the woman’s collarbone, Cheetham and his colleagues deduced someone had cut her throat. As people in Iron Age Britain were known not to have buried their dead—cremation was more customary—the researchers believe the woman was most likely part of a ritual or sacrifice. The bones piled beneath her skeleton came from cattle, sheep, a dog and a horse, and—in a particularly creepy touch—had been arranged to mirror the woman’s skeleton, so that her head, pelvis and legs were aligned with their heads, pelvises and limbs.